By Roy S. Johnson, 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Murrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald.
This is an opinion column
They’re not little. Not anymore.
Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were 14. Denise McNair was 11.
They were young on that Sunday morning when, at 10:22 a.m., a bomb of hate exploded beneath the stairwell at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing each of them in a tragic, cowardly instant.
They were young, too young to die—but they’re not little. Not anymore.
We’ve long called them our four little girls. For 59 years now, they’ve been our little girls. Because of their youth, because of their innocence, because of the joy others who were there, who were inside that majestic Birmingham church on that Sunday morning, said the girls exhibited with each other in their final moments.
Because so little of their lives was lived before hate snatched them from us. Or tried to. They’re still ours, but they’re not little. Not anymore.
Not in our hearts, which still ache. Not in our collective memory, which still sees their smiling faces as if the four of them were standing before us dressed in their Sunday best.
Not now. Not when vestiges of the hate that murdered them still flow—59 years later. When its stench still lingers.
On a Saturday in June, 31 members of a wretched right-wing cesspool were arrested in northern Idaho, yanked from the back of a U-Haul en route to a pride event. Each wore beige khakis, caps, and dark blue shirts, many emblazoned with “Reclaim America” on the back. They obscured (read: hid) their cowardly faces with head coverings (sound familiar?) and sunglasses. Inside the truck, police found riot gear and a smoke grenade. The bunch—which included Wesley E. Van Horn of Lexington, Alabama—was charged with conspiracy to riot. They’re slated to be tried in September.
The Patriot Front is what they call themselves. White supremacists are who they are. Hate is who they are. Hate red, white, and blue-washed with a thick coat of faux patriotism. Patriotism that would turn the stomachs of our founding fathers, maybe even the slaveholders among them.
They believe white invaders to our shores had every right to steal land from Native Americans, and a lot of other foolishness. Such as this, from its manifest, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center: “An African, for example, may have lived, worked, and even been classed as a citizen in America for centuries, yet he is not American. He is, as he likely prefers to be labeled, an African in America. The same rule applies to others who are not of the founding stock of our people…”
They’re why Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, and Denise aren’t little. Not anymore.
There’s nothing little about them—about their importance, about their vaunted pedestal along the path we still tread. The path towards a place where hate hides. Where it dies.
There’s nothing little about what the girls can still teach us—what they should be teaching our children.
No child in Alabama should reach the age Denise was on that tragic Sunday without knowing who she was, without being taught who she was in the classroom. And most certainly, no child should reach the age of Addie Mae, Carole, and Cynthia without knowing who they were.
Not just how they died, but also how they lived. How they were as daughters, nieces, cousins, and friends.
How their lives must still inspire us to cut off the head of the snake of hate—and live with the joy they left behind.
They’re big enough for that.